When we think of grief, the first thing that typically comes to mind is how we feel after the death of a loved one. It’s a sense of sadness over not only a loss but a permanent loss, and that finality can be hard to wrap our heads around. But even when we’re dealing with someone’s death, not everyone mourns or grieves the same way, on the same timeline. We have a societal script for grieving, which includes holding some type of memorial, then burial or scattering of ashes, followed by a luncheon. That also comes with the expectation that, once those things are over, the person in mourning can magically recover and can bounce right back to work and their “normal” life.
But anyone who has lost someone — even if you weren’t particularly close to them or didn’t know them at all (because they were a celebrity or other public figure) — can tell you that nothing about grief is simple or straightforward. And it sure as hell doesn’t follow any type of schedule. Here’s a quick look at some of the different types of grief that we may have to deal with at some point during our lifetime. There are far more than this, but this should give you an idea of the breadth of the emotion.
As discussed above, our standard concept of grief is our (completely normal) response to the loss of someone or something important to you. In addition to grieving someone’s death, we can also mourn things like a divorce, the end of a friendship, moving out of a community, losing a job, and/or the loss of your health after becoming ill or having an accident.
According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), grief reactions may include:
- Feelings of emptiness or numbness, akin to a state of shock
- A range of physical responses, including crying, confusion, dry mouth, lethargy, nausea, trouble breathing, or changes to typical eating or sleeping habits
- Feelings of anger, whether they’re generalized or directed specifically toward a person or situation
- Overwhelming guilt about your behavior in relation to the thing you’re grieving
- Withdrawal from things you previously enjoyed, including favorite activities and spending time with friends and family
- Difficulty concentrating, working, or making decisions (big or small).
- Questioning your previously held convictions and beliefs, such as your spirituality or even purpose in life
As the name suggests, feelings of grief can begin before the actual loss occurs. When you know that a loved one’s death is imminent — whether you were given a specific timeframe or they have a terminal illness that could last anywhere from weeks to years — your brain starts to mentally prepare for the loss. This can include imaging what your life is going to be like without this person (including celebrations like birthdays or holidays, or just having them around in everyday life) and how you might cope with that.
It may sound morbid, but anticipatory grief is completely normal and provides us with more time to prepare for the reality of the loss. According to the NHPCO, “Anticipatory mourning includes feelings of loss, concern for the dying person, balancing conflicting demands, and preparing for death.”
This is essentially the opposite of anticipatory grief — it describes the combination of grief and shock you may experience when someone’s death was entirely unexpected. Sometimes, feelings of sudden loss can be so overwhelming that a person is temporarily unable to function because whatever coping skills they had fell far short in this situation. “Even though one may be able to acknowledge that loss has occurred, the full impact of loss may take much longer to fully comprehend than in the case of an expected loss,” the NHPCO notes.
One thing about grief is practically a given: It doesn’t have a set timetable or schedule. And it certainly doesn’t play by any rules. In fact, for some people, serious prolonged grief can start to interfere with their ability to function in everyday life. They may have difficulty at work, caring for themselves or their family, or enjoying regular social interactions with friends. It’s also possible for complicated grief to turn into depression and/or anxiety. If that latter sounds familiar, it’s time to speak with a mental health professional (if you haven’t done so already).
Absent grief describes when someone who’s lost a loved one doesn’t show common signs of anguish or despair. They may act as though nothing has happened — behavior that could be the result of extreme shock or denial. Remember, each person handles loss differently, and it’s imperative to keep in mind that just because we don’t see someone grieving in the way we expect does not mean they aren’t in pain.
For some, their feelings aren’t evident immediately after experiencing a loss. Sometimes people take a little longer to process and grow their feelings about their grief before they show any sign of loss or sadness. Some people may break down months after a death and show stronger feelings than they did when they first learned of the death.
Physical Reactions to Grief
Although grief is an emotion, it can take a physical toll on your body. Because of the extreme amount of stress, devastation and sadness evokes, grief may show itself in one or more of the following ways:
- Weakened immune system
- Heart issues
- Body aches
- Digestive problems
- Engaging in harmful coping mechanisms
- Having trouble sleeping
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